The Pillars of Disaster Resilience and Community Engagement

Guest author: Prof. Edward Blakely

On April the 6th, 2017 Prof. Edward Blakely, the Former Recovery Director Post-Katrina floods in New Orleans, has been invited to deliver a keynote speech held at the Gran Sasso Science Institute, on the occasion of the 8th Anniversary of the earthquake which almost destroyed L’Aquila, one of the biggest Medieval Italian cities. During the seminar he presented the challenges of post-disaster reconstruction and community engagement. This post is a summary of the talk — with his edits – and interview responses regarding  the key research challenges in addressing urban disaster resilience.

Based on his academic and professional experience, Dr.Blakely emphasized the importance of the continuous engagement with the community in order to co-design the re-construction of “the place” after a disaster. Dr. Blakley argues that a recovery director’s key role is to facilitate democracy, or “the difficult art to let people confront each other and build trust” Post-disaster there is a need for discussion among inhabitants, and those discussions should be based on solid facts and data, not speculations. In this context, the principal role of  the scientific community is to develop and provide the necessary data about previous and present processes in order to minimize those speculations.

At the same time,  institutions should play a synergistic role in setting policies through a participative and transparent governance process. Data dispersal to key stakeholders and  policy making to ensure participation will allow  debates to emerge and will ensure  that community restoration occurs prior to physical reconstruction. Neighborhoods social networks should not be scattered through the reconstruction process, but these networks should be further strengthened through a creative process of re-designing the city of the future. Dr.Blakely’s second point for post-disaster resilience, after recognizing the role the community, is that reconstruction should start with framing new rules. There is a danger within the emergency management, which is indeed to fall in an excessively rapid and superficial re-setting of the previous rules, and city forms and dynamics. On the contrary, sustainable reconstructions need a “visionary attitude, a shared dream embedded in a wider plan”, having a sort of “cultural-dependency”, but not renouncing to higher and more ambitious goals. Repositioning and relaunching the city (and its economies, too), is a “better” way of rebuilding it. A central goal should be  retaining skilled, younger and older people (categories which usually leave a post-disaster setting, and which are difficult to attract back) within the community, to be the core recovery workforce.

Relaunching while rebuilding, is key to understand the strategic facets of post-disaster resilience, telling us that “small & better” should be preferable to “just bigger”. Or “insourcing”  better than outsourcing the know-how, processes and functions. Indeed, local resources are the very key assets to leveraging sustainable post-disasters recovery processes, both in time of peace and after a disaster: if “slim governments” outsource their functions, as well as the reconstruction-related activities, the city will lose contractors, investors and skills (either after the disaster, or once rebuilt).

In a nutshell, the four necessarily synergistic pillars of disaster resilience should be:

  • Economic development (working on local assets and values to shape new targets and allies)
  • Housing & community facilities (multifunctional facilities to be extensively used)
  • Neighborhood renewal – health & education (to cure the diseases while preventing them)

Enhanced public institutions and community organizations (through integrated and coordinated activities)
Within those pillars, the role of research is key in insourcing the work to engage local skilled people. Research can substantiate facts and data as the base of a good long term recovery path i) supporting a “realistic visionary” plan, ii) helping the re-shaping of local governance providing integrated and critical views about past and current dynamics, actors and networks, iii) offer tools, methods and innovations for a paradigm shift toward prevention and mitigation rather than just supporting the building back. Therefore, the most pressing research questions to be addressed would be:

  1. How to combine “maintaining traditions” and “developing preventions” under the pressure of a post-disaster reconstruction ? How to feed long-term innovative recovery plans with a necessary “local cultural dependency”?
  2. How to reframe a “thick” local governance (rearranging local institutions, defining new rules, “insourcing”, etc.) and support local capacity building in a post-disaster context?
  3. How to continuously engage local inhabitants in a long-term recovery plan in order to retain the community’s social capital and reduce post-disaster demographic declines?

Biography: Edward J. Blakely is Professor of Urban and Regional Planning Policy and Director of the Planning Research Centre at the University of Sydney, Australia. He was Chair of the Department of City and Regional Planning at the University of California (Berkeley) while authoring ten books and a hundred articles in the field of disaster and risk management. Blakely is known for having been Executive Director of Recovery Management for the City of New Orleans and recognised by UN Habitat for his contributions to social justice and sustainable planning in disaster recovery in 2012.

Further readings:

Blakely, E. J. (2012). My storm: Managing the recovery of New Orleans in the wake of Katrina, University of Pennsylvania Press.

Brewer, J. and Carbonell, A. (2012). Resilient Coastal City Regions: Planning for Climate Change in the United States and Australia. Wiley Online Library.

Blakely, E.J. et al (2011). Urban Disaster Recovery Management Policy, Planning, Concepts & Cases. Crisis Response Press.